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Nation's Largest Class Sizes Haunt Educators, Likely to Remain

Nation's Largest Class Sizes Haunt Educators, Likely to Remain

Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Margaret Pratt doesn't give as many writing assignments to her Bingham High School English students as she used to. There isn't time to grade them all, she says.

"Sometimes, it feels more like crowd control than teaching," said Pratt, who teaches three classes, one of which is now 34 students, down from a high of 42 pupils.

Large classes are common in Utah, which has the nation's highest birth rate, the biggest class sizes and spends less per student than any other state.

But even if every cent of a record $1.6 billion state budget surplus were spent on reducing class sizes, Utah would likely still have some of the nation's most crowded classrooms.

Research from the Office of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst shows reducing the ratio of students to licensed teaching professionals by one student to 21.4-to-1 would cost $57.6 million. To include new buildings for those educators would raise the cost to $572.8 million.

Bringing that ratio down to the national average of 15.8-to-1 would cost $506.2 million in compensation and just over $5 billion when facilities are included, the research shows. Even with a hot economy that's helping drive student population growth, the state doesn't have that kind of money.

The upcoming year's total budget is less than $10.7 billion. Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, contends Utah's school children would be better served if the state spent more money on increasing teacher salaries than increasing the number of teachers.

Raising the average salary from $38,976 to $46,597 would cost $232.7 million, according to the fiscal analyst's office.

"Do you want to increase teacher pay and ensure that we have the best possible teachers in the classroom, or do we reduce class sizes by a couple students?" asked Stephenson, who is also president of the business-backed Utah Taxpayers Association. "To me, there's no question. ... When you can't attract people into the classroom, class size is secondary."

Pratt supports increasing teacher pay, especially among starting teachers who have difficulty finding affordable housing. But she also notes that paying teachers more doesn't reduce their workload, which affects both students and faculty.

Pratt wakes up at 4:30 a.m. to begin grading papers, she said.

"I don't know a teacher in my department who feels confident they are giving their students appropriate and sufficient feedback on their students' writing. It's very frustrating," she said.

Utah is far from having more students than any other state, but as a percentage of the total population it is among the highest. There are about 2.4 million residents in Utah and about 512,000 are enrolled in public school, or a little more than one in every four people who live here.

Census figures show the state has hovered near the bottom nationally in per-student spending for years. Democrats have harped on that figure as a reason to increase funding, but Republicans seeking cuts in the income tax that pays for education contend it's misleading.

"When you take the family sizes in the state of Utah, and the fact that the federal government owns 70 percent of the land, what a lot of people never focus on is the fact that if you take the percentage of household income that goes to education, we're among the highest in the nation," Senate Assistant Majority Whip Sheldon Killpack, R-Syracuse, said on an audio blog during the week.

"Unfortunately, when you're looking at this issue you can't choose the facts that are convenient. You have to look at the entire picture."

However, the nonpartisan policy research group Utah Foundation issued a report last spring that said between 1995 and 2004, Utah's ranking on the amount of tax revenue spent on education per $1,000 of income fell from fifth in the country to 27th.

"The crux of that report is that despite being lowest per pupil spending in the country, Utah at least used to put a high effort into taxing ourselves at a high rate for education," said Utah Foundation President Stephen Kroes. "The state is still spending quite a bit and the overall tax burden hasn't gone down, but it's going into health and prisons and somewhat into transportation."

Kroes said a big part of the decline in the state's education funding effort is because Utah has chipped away at local property taxes, which are a large source of education money in other states. That includes Virginia, which has more than twice as many students as Utah and a student-teacher ratio of 12.2-to-1, or roughly half of Utah's, according to National Education Association statistics.

"I don't know if we'd ever be like the Eastern states that have huge property tax loads. People here in the West just don't stand for high property taxes," he said.

Of the 10 states with the lowest student-teacher ratios, all but Wyoming and South Dakota are on the East Coast. Wyoming is the nation's least populous state.

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, said limiting potential revenue from property taxes was a mistake that's made it difficult to pay teachers well, which in turn has made it more difficult to replace a rapidly retiring workforce and discouraged college students from entering the profession.

She opposes tax cuts that cut into education funding and said teachers need help. Earlier this week, she met a high school history teacher who had 47 students in a single class.

"Teachers by necessity, so they can live and eat and sleep, they assign fewer papers," said Moss, a former high school English teacher. "It cuts down on discussion. You get the ones that are more verbal and aggressive doing all the talking. It's easy when you're in a big class to shrink into oblivion."

Republicans and Democrats agree reducing class sizes would be helpful. But there's disagreement whether the state can afford it.

Gov. Jon Huntsman, a Republican, wants smaller class sizes in kindergarten through third grade. He's seeking $28.7 million for a program called STAR 20, which calls for a student-to-adult ratio of 20-to-1. The word "adult" was chosen carefully instead of "teacher." It allows schools to hire professional staff to help students without actually reducing the number of students in a class to 20.

"Ultimately, what we'd like to have is class sizes of 20, especially in our grades K-3," said Christine Kearl, Huntsman's education deputy. "But we realize there are some barriers in our state that may prohibit some students from reaching a 1-to-20 ratio."

In other words, parents shouldn't be surprised if there are more than 20 students per class even if STAR 20 passes.

Pratt said she just wants lawmakers to do something about class size before she has to start hanging desks from the ceiling to find room for every student in her high school classes in South Jordan, a Salt Lake City suburb.

"The public outcry is not for tax cuts, it is to fix education," she said. "I just love this job and I love my colleagues, but the job is killing me. We're killing our teachers. That's a crime."

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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